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Official: U.S. can't screen all ship cargo

From NBC's Pete Williams
The Obama administration says the government cannot meet next year's deadline imposed by Congress for ensuring that 100% of cargo sent to the U.S. by ship has been physically screened.

The requirement was intended to help prevent a nuclear device from being smuggled into the U.S. in seagoing cargo. But Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate committee Wednesday that it will be impossible to assure that all cargo is screened by the July 2010 deadline. The administration will seek an extension, allowed under the law passed by Congress.

Homeland Security pilot programs in five overseas ports, to attempt 100% screening, have so far shown how difficult it is, Napolitano said. "The technology does not exist to effectively and automatically detect suspicious anomalies" in cargo containers, and currently available scanners have a hard time seeing accurately through dense materials, where hazardous substances could easily be hidden, she told the Senate Commerce Committee.

The problem is also partly a practical one. Most ports do not have a single point through which all cargo passes, so 100% screening would either slow trade or require ports to be redesigned. And the cost of 100% scanning would be steep.  Installing canning devices would cost about $8 million for each of the roughly 2,100 cargo lanes at more than 700 ports around the world that ship to the United States, she said.

Homeland is expanding on a program started in the Bush administration that relies on intelligence and shipping reports to identify the highest priority cargo for screeing. It also relies on trusted shippers who have demonstrated good security practices to screen and safeguard their own cargo bound for the U.S.